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By Jim Duncan CVFDude@aol.com

Opening to the biggest buzz in many years, Dos Rios hopes to change the way locals think about Mexican food. The new restaurant asks some hard questions: Will Des Moines buy Mexican entrees that cross the $20, even $30 threshold? Will customers accept that tequila can be as sophisticated as Scotch or wine? Can ethnic street food sneak past the white linen profiler? Answers will determine whether this place becomes a landmark or a badly timed venture like Cabo San Lucas and La Fonda, previous efforts to take Mexican cuisine upscale here.

Two precedents suggest Dos Rios will succeed: Managing Partner Karl Alterman and Executive Chef Rich Garcia have a similar restaurant doing extremely well in Boca Raton, Fla.; Mark Miller and Rick Bayless became food world superstars with similar concepts in Santa Fe and Chicago. Their culinary idea was to apply the best fresh and local ingredients to meticulously researched regional recipes. Alterman is a humble disciple.

“Don’t even mention me in the same sentence with them. Rick Bayless is one of the legendary chefs and restaurateurs in the world; I’m just hoping to run a good restaurant,” he said.

Still, comparisons will be made because there’s nothing like this place between here and Chicago, and because this restaurant resembles Bayless’ place more than it does other Mexican cafes in Iowa — particularly price-wise. In an instance in which Dos Rios crossed the $30 line, Bayless’ top restaurant (which won this year’s James Beard Award as the nation’s best) sells the same ribeye steak, from the same meat purveyor, for $3 less than Dos Rios. Dos Rios doesn’t have the same commitment to sustainable seafood either.

It stacks up quite well though in its support of the best local farmers. Dos Rios’ chickens all come from Sheeder Farms in Guthrie Center, where they are naturally raised outdoors. Their pork all comes from Niman, a mostly Iowa conglomerate of pig farmers dedicated to the highest standards of husbandry. I have seen Alterman, Garcia and Chef de Cuisine Hal Jasa shopping farmers markets for seasonal foods that found their way to their menu — Swiss chard, squash, lettuces and tomatoes.

Their dedication to traditional recipes is obvious: in the spices on the complimentary pumpkin seeds; in the different masas used for hand made tortillas, empanadas, tamales and enchiladas; in the spit roasted meats; the chile glazes; the many fresh made salsas and different moles. Dos Rios uses molcajetes and not just as décor. Those lava stone mortars are employed to grind and to serve foods — a touch of style. Tableside guacamole preparation used roasted poblanos, fresh limes and tomatoes, but their fresh flavors were compromised by heavily spiced tortilla chips. Sometimes less is more.

Lunch featured a two-taco special complemented perfectly with a sweet citrus vinaigrette salad and soup for $10. This is an inexpensive way to try five spit-roasted meats, mahi-mahi or the shrimp. The best dinner dishes I tried were duck sausage tacos; a cactus-chile glazed pork chop in red mole; a Oaxacan beef rib that was braised in avocado leaves. Jasa says he’s proudest of the cactus-glazed corvina. Other foodies gushed over drunken calamari, roast chicken, seasonal side dishes and desserts like tres leches (sponge cakes) and three flans.

Service improved progressively over four visits, even acoustical problems were addressed. Little mistakes, like skirt steak being sliced the wrong direction, were corrected. The bar featured more than 200 tequilas, including rare legends at up to $46 a shot. Cocktails were made with fresh fruit juices and pure concentrates, never mixes. The margarita salt even came from top of the line Salt Trader.

Bottom line: Dos Rios is on track for becoming one of Iowa’s very best restaurants.

Side dishes

The Iowa Restaurant Association has opened its annual Culinary Competition and Awards Gala to the public on Sunday at Prairie Meadows; $75, 957-3535. … The new Gourmet magazine names Sage one of America’s top Farm to Table restaurants. CV

Dos Rios
316 Court Ave. 282-2995
Mon. - Sat.: 11 a.m.- 3 p.m.; Tues. - Thurs. 5 - 10 p.m.; Fri. - Sat. 5 - 11 p.m.; Sun. 5-10 p.m.


Dos Rios
316 Court Ave. 282-2995
Mon. - Sat.: 11 a.m.- 3 p.m.; Tues. - Thurs. 5 - 10 p.m.;
Fri. - Sat. 5 - 11 p.m.; Sun. 5-10 p.m.

Past Food Dude Reviews
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Perry hotel (1-18-07) Beyond frozen (1-25-07)
Centro (2-1-07) KC BBQ (2-8-07)
Planet Sub (2-15-07) Trostel’s Greenbriar (2-22-07)
Acapulco (3-1-07) Aryana (3-8-07)
AJ's (3-15-07) Ban Thai (3-22-07)
Two Crop Palace(3-29-07) Mo Q x 2 (4-5-07)
What's In A Name?(4-12-07) Lemongrass (4-19-07)
Chef Joe's Place (5-3-07) Suburban Restaurant (5-10-07)
Gateway Market Café (5-17-07) Irina’s Restaurant Bar (5-24-07)
Trailer Tripe (5-31-07) Azalea (6-07-07)
Pho All Seasons (6-14-07) Farmers Market (6-21-07)
El Sabor Latino (6-28-07) Crouse Café (7-5-07)
Bistro Montage (7-12-07) Jaliscolita rebounds (7-19-07)
New Saigon (7-26-07) Smokey D's BBQ (8-2-07)
Gourmet Burgers (8-9-07) Iowa State Fair (8-16-07)
Rolling Wok (8-23-07) Sports Bars (8-30-07)
Dragon House West (9-6-07) Carr’s Soul Food Cafe (9-13-07)
The Sushi Surge(9-20-07) B & B Grocery Meat & Deli (9-27-07)
Redefining Pizza (10-4-07) Café Su (10-11-07)
Providence Café (10-18-07) Firkin & Fox (10-25-07)

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